The Being of Leadership

by Alli Polin on September 3, 2013

Acting and leadership are about connection, authenticity and responsiveness

I took my first acting class when I was in elementary school and theater was a part of my world all the way through college and into “real life.”  At some point, probably around the arrival of children and promotions at work, life got incredibly busy, acting fell away and became a happy memory.

I still remember preparing and performing like it was yesterday.  I would run my lines, what felt like 1,000’s of times, until I got to the point I could speed through them, a million miles an hour, without stopping to think.

I easily flashback: There I am, behind the curtain, opening night for Last of the Red Hot Lovers.  About to walk out on the stage, feeling my character, I realize that while I am thinking about her (my) life, I have no idea what my opening line is I’m blank.    I walk out on the stage and…  like magic, I’m there, experiencing, engaging, and responding.  It’s a powerful and energizing moment of being present and leaning in to others to create a shared, yet intimate, experience.  What if that was the essence of leadership too?  

Acting has important lessons for every leader that doesn’t want to play a part but instead create a meaningful legacy.  

Here are five lessons, that despite their simplicity, could transform your leadership.

Acting and Leadership Are About Being, Not Doing

My character was not someone separate from myself, but deeply connected to who I am.  Moreover, I didn’t have a list of things my character would DO but instead centered on her way of being and the doing fell into place.  As a leader, when you are solely task-driven, you can quickly become disconnected from who you are at your core. Know what you believe, your core values, and your choices and leadership will flow with greater purpose and connection.

Don’t Worry About What You Want to Say Next, Listen Now

It mattered that I knew my lines cold because then I could forget about what I wanted to say next and simply listen and respond.  Here’s the scoop:  you’re not listening if the only thing you hear is your own inner-dialog.  Let go and be present.  Your story will have more meaning and impact when it flows from your conversation than from a desire to look super-smart or witty.  I promise, what you need and want to say next will come to you, in the moment.

Be Responsive to Others, Not Reactive

We react to circumstances and are responsive to people.  You’ve been there; something happens and you react to it in a big way: cry, jump, scream, walk away, etc..  We see your internal experience through big external reaction.  In contrast, when we’re responsive, we take a beat to acknowledge our feelings and the feelings of others and then respond.  Leading and acting in reactive mode are exhausting, filled with must-dos, tangled with incredible self-awareness of how others see us.  When we’re responsive we’re a part of the dance, subtly influencing outcomes and deeply present in the moment.

Find Your Truth and Speak It With Heart

An acting coach once told me that my monologue was great but she saw in my eyes something that betrayed my words – I needed to find a way to make my character’s truth my own and speak it with heart. Leader or actor, the same lesson is true: If you don’t believe it, nobody else will either.  If you only say what others want to hear, your leadership will be flat, duplicitous, and uninspiring.  When you speak the truth, you invite others to join you on the journey.

Make the Leap From Role to Embodiment

When leaders or actors are just playing a part, somehow it feels empty, disconnected.  We are not our roles, or titles, we are all people.  If you want to be a great leader or a great actor, be a human being and not a caricature of who you think others want you to be.  The secret to embodiment?  At heart, be you – bring your whole self and your unique experiences to your leadership and you’ll no longer be playing a role but truly being a leader.

Leaders find themselves center stage all the time.   All eyes on every word, action and response.  Performances are judged daily and the critics are harsh.  Be a leader that leads with integrity, truth and humanity – one that you’d want follow, collaborate with and aspire to be.

What else would you add to help leaders make the leap from doing into being?   Share your tips and experience in the comments below.

Are you ready to make the leap?  For speaking, coaching or consulting, Let’s Connect!

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Lalita Raman September 3, 2013 at 6:16 am

The role to embodiment is what appealed to me the most. Yes the connection is the most important, to feel it from within and be it

Good Post Alli.


Alli Polin September 3, 2013 at 8:53 am

Thank you, Lalita! Yes, when we embody what it means to be a leader, there is no longer the gap of stepping into our full potential, but we’re there.


Joy Guthrie September 3, 2013 at 10:39 am

Interesting parallels, Alli. When you leave a role that you’re acting you can turn it off. Depending upon how practiced you are at it, it may take you longer to turn it off. Do great leaders do that? Do they turn off what they do that makes them a great leader? Maybe not. When you’re learning to lead, though, you can “fake it to you make it” (maybe). At least a couple of the things you mentioned really have authenticity at the heart of them. Do your eyes belie what you say? Then, your authenticity is in question. Thought provoking post! Thank you for sharing.


Alli Polin September 3, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Great points, Joy! I don’t think that acting and leadership are one and the same despite some pointers for both sides. You raise something so interesting… actors turn it off, do / can / should leaders? I can tell you that when I was a corporate VP I was happy at the end of the day to be able to kick off my shoes, veg for a while and recharge. I suspect that leaders don’t turn off who they are but allow down-time from an always-on world to re-energize and keep making an impact.

Also interesting, I noticed when I went to put tags on this post that I immediately chose authenticity… but I didn’t use it even one time in the post itself. Authenticity has become a buzz word in many ways and I hear from client “I am me! How am I supposed to be more me? More authentic?” Hopefully this points them to a doorway in.

Love your insights and greatly appreciate that you shared them here! You have me thinking too, Joy!


Blair Glaser September 3, 2013 at 11:03 am

Hi Alli! LOVED this post! You and I have theater in common as a piece of our past and a link to leadership. This post nailed it. There is only one thing I would add which I know you will probably remember and relate to. Once in a scene in which I had to cry and was struggling to do so, my acting teacher said: “You never want to focus on the emotions. Always on the [character’s] objective.”
Of course, once I really connected to the true objectives of the character in the scene, the emotions followed suit.
I find this so true in leadership. Keep your eye on what the task is, don’t get distracted by your’s or others emotions, and you will be doing your job and leading effectively.


Alli Polin September 3, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Blair – Fantastic add on following objectives, not emotion! I can remember in an on-camera class I was taking I had to cry and couldn’t muster up much tears. I would listen to music that made me feel some down emotions on the way but I was blocked because I was so focused on the emotion that I missed the objective – brilliant way to put it!

Leaders CAN care about people, be frustrated or elated, and lead with heart without letting emotions rule the day. Thanks for adding it here!


Linda S Fitzgerald September 3, 2013 at 11:46 am

Wonderful Alli. The following is what struck me: Your story will have more meaning and impact when it flows from your conversation than from a desire to look super-smart or witty. I promise, what you need and want to say next will come to you, in the moment. I’ve been in situations where I felt “blank” only to have the right words come to me at just the right time. If I as a leader can relax and trust that what I need will be there when I need it; then I’ll be the woman I am. And being ourselves is what others truly want.

BTW – I directed “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” for our community theatre many years ago. Had been an award-winning performer and Red Hot was my 1st directing challenge. Interesting connection between us.


Alli Polin September 3, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Linda –

How funny that you directed Last of the Red Hot Lovers! I was Jeanette. 🙂

Thanks for sharing that you have also found that when you let go of prepping your answer, and smart response, are present, curious, and really listen… what you need to say and do will absolutely come to you. It’s about trusting self that allows us to truly connect.

Thanks for sharing the theater connection too!


Stephen Lahey September 3, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Interesting perspective, Alli. It’s hours of preparation that allow spontaneity to add to the overall performance of the individual and the cast. In the same way, effective leaders are either prepared (including personal development) for the challenges they face, or not.


Alli Polin September 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm

I think you’re right, Steve. There is a point where we are prepared that allows us to let go and be IN it – for leaders and actors. When we’re filled with second guessing and insecurity is exactly when we start to try to control the situation and the outcomes.

Appreciate that you’ve highlighted that important link!


Samantha September 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Wonderful post Alli.

My recommendation to help leaders make the leap from doing to being?

Temporarily (or in some cases…permanently) toss out every book you have on leadership. Every ‘how to’ book. Forget everything you ever learned and were taught about leadership and how to lead.

So that you can get to the clean slate of WHO YOU ARE.

Your values.
Your truths.

As long as we are too dependent on someone else’ checklist, we aren’t able to BE from our core selves. We’re still too much in parrot mode. (dependency)

For some, this will feel REALLY scary at first. And it’s not a ‘diss’ either. MOST of us have been trained this way. And that is why I recommend tossing it ALL out at least long enough to dig into your own essence.

Once we have a grip on who WE are and can be and lead from that place at least most of the time, then it can be easier to read and learn about leadership, pick up new ideas, with some discernment. Without the need to have to depend on it like a checklist or you can’t function.

EVERY situation and encounter we have with people will be different. Theory can only take us so far.

Awesome insights Alli. Really love this post.


Alli Polin September 3, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Fantastic points, Samantha! I’m with you! I can remember going through coach training and getting my certification… We were trained to ask “powerful questions” and were given a list of examples. When I was in a session with clients, I’d have it on my desk as a reference. I finally realized that the most powerful questions were the ones that came from curiosity in service of my client in the moment and not pulled from a list. I had the list there because I had doubt that I’d know what to do without it. When I put it away I transitioned from someone that had trained as a coach to being a coach.

You put it so well: “Tossing it all out at least long enough to dig into your own essence.” That’s what it’s about! Someone else’s words, path to success, methodology is all hogwash until we know who we are and make the message, path, approach one that is a part of us – not separate. When we do that, we can flex and play with ideas instead of only having the answers as written. Leadership is never as simple as black and white print in a book makes it seem.

I’m with you!! Appreciate that you’ve added depth to this post and most off all, I appreciate YOU!


Terri Klass September 3, 2013 at 9:12 pm

I loved drama when I was little and to this day I remember how sometimesI tried to be something I was not comfortable with. That is the essence of leadership for me- being in a comfortable place that reflects who I am and what I stand for.

Loved the post, Alli and what really called to me was the need to find your truth. By trying to be another person, we fall into a trap of never being fulfilled and not honoring who we are.

I think if leaders can do away with labels and focus on how they can support others, then they will move into being.

Thanks for making us think about who we are!


Alli Polin September 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm

It’s so funny, when we feel the discomfort of being something or someone we’re not… makes the ease of being ourselves that much more powerful. It really is about honoring who we are.

Oh my gosh – could you imagine? No titles! Far too many people would be lost but would realize that who they are goes far, far beyond their title.

Always appreciate your insight and connection, Terri. Thank you!


Carl September 4, 2013 at 4:16 am

Wonderful Post Alli, and your words helped frame my thoughts on leadership hindrances. Our leadership will emerge when we stop ‘trying to be’ the leader and simply embrace the role.

Very appreciative of your work
Best regards,


Alli Polin September 4, 2013 at 4:21 am

Many thanks for reading and sharing, Carl!

That’s it in an nutshell, isn’t it? Stop trying to be the leader or the boss or the head honcho and just be YOU in the role. Each of us, who we are and what we believe, is the missing ingredient to make the leap from the job description and exceptional leadership.

Appreciate your feedback!

~ Alli


Jon Mertz September 4, 2013 at 7:05 am

Some wonderfully practical and accurate points, Alli. One to add is practice. Actors get into roles by walking in the shoes of the role, understanding what it is really like to be, in this case, a great leader. It is also about practicing the part, trying new things, adjusting based on what works, and adapting to the expectations set.

A great way to look at leading…. by focusing on being. Thanks! Jon


Alli Polin September 4, 2013 at 8:31 am

Absolutely, Jon! Practice is key! Why I knew my lines cold and the blocking etc was because it was only with the practice that I could let go and get into the being – otherwise I, like so many leaders, would be stuck between conscious incompetence and conscious competence. Learning, challenging, creative stretch are all key parts of the process. Thanks for adding that important reminder.


Samantha September 4, 2013 at 9:48 pm

I hear you! I spent $8000 on a spiritual life coaching school and learned a great deal about the difference between cookie cutter coaching biz and ‘genuine’ coaching. (I had to walk away from the program by the way….and could NOT get my money back! grrrr)

I learned quite a bit from the experience, even if it was mostly what NOT to do with people. : )

People don’t want to pay anyone to simply read a script. That isn’t helpful nor is it intuitive. If me, you, our clients….anyone…if all that we need to do is READ…send me the script or hey..better yet…just tell me the books you (not YOU…the script reader) use and I’ll read it myself, thank you very much! (grins)

Why pay people to read to us if we can read all by ourselves!?

Ok…off my soapbox. : )


Alli Polin September 5, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Right on, Sister! 🙂


LaRae Quy September 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm

A fascinating post, Alli! And this sentence really resonated with me: “You’re not listening if the only thing you hear is your own inner-dialog.” True brilliance, no matter our role in life! We need to quiet that inner voice long enough to hear others. I read Samantha’s response…I went to San Francisco Theological Seminary for graduate studies in spiritual direction. The big thing in being a spiritual director is putting yourself aside and listen to the other person…LOVED this post. I keep learning new things about you, Alli!


Alli Polin September 10, 2013 at 5:08 am

Thank you, LaRae! How interesting that both you and Samantha were drawn to a spiritual path to help others go deep within and create change. Great way to say it “putting yourself aside.” In my training we learned to expand our listening past our own dialog, past the words that they’re sharing and listen to the whole of the universe and how it connects to their way of being. Listening is something we take for granted but it’s a skill to be practiced and developed over time to make a meaningful impact. Listening keeps us in the moment, not five steps ahead – that can be hard to do for smart people that want others to be successful and do the right thing!


Lolly Daskal September 11, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Blog is great!

I love learning new things about you every time I visit your blog.

For me the lessons of leadership are always laced of the heart.
When you have heart you have caring ears, responsive heart, authentic heart, and less worry and more trust.

I have learned a lot and I appreciate your insights!



Alli Polin September 12, 2013 at 9:19 am

It’s amazing, isn’t it? When we listen our heart and share it with the world we are leading with our whole-selves, more connected and simply more at peace.

Appreciate you tremendously, Lolly!


Doug Ramsey September 14, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Alli, what a terrific post. Your depth of insight and wisdom are so very refreshing. Your 5 lessons all resonate strongly with me. I would only add that for leaders to fully embrace your lessons some form of self work and ego/shadow management would help leaders find their authentic selves and present this higher self in being who they really are. Thank you for the excellent post.


Alli Polin September 15, 2013 at 9:04 am


First of all, thank you for taking the time to stop by the blog and share your insights! I strongly agree with your comment. It takes commitment (for actors and leaders) to do the inner-work – otherwise, we’re only skimming the surface. It can feel awkward and uncertain as we begin to dive inside, discover and reconnect with our most authentic-selves and ultimately share our inner-knowing with the world.

Important point to add! Thanks!

~ Alli


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